Saturday, August 1, 2009


Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens. Selah

                        Psalm 68.19 

What’s in a Name?

A few months back, I met a young man soon to become a father. He and his wife were expecting a daughter and they’d narrowed their name options to three: their mothers’ maiden names and Selah. I’ve always loved surnames for women, but “Selah” intrigued me most. “It’s from The Psalms,” he said. “It means ‘Praise the Lord.’” What a perfect name and inspired choice. I told him, “You may have found the most beautiful name any child received.” The conversation moved on to Lamaze classes and nursery furniture and such. Still, my mind kept leaping back to “Selah.” His translation differed slightly from mine. I’d always read “Selah” as a musical direction to indicate a momentary break to reflect. The English teacher in me wanted to mention this. Suppose they call their little girl Selah and she spends the rest of her life trying to clarify what her name means?

I politely resisted the impulse. But our talk left me wondering if my translation was off. From time to time, I’d Google the word, yet with my searches raising more questions than answers, mild curiosity evolved into manic obsession. So I called a seminarian buddy for a clear explanation. What does Selah mean? “Nobody really knows,” she said. “That’s why it’s transliterated [phonetically spelled] rather than translated. We don’t even know if it’s a noun or a verb, which is why we can't punctuate it.” There must be etymological clues. “Nope,” she answered. “The word has no concrete lineage. It just pops up.” She explained everyone agrees “Selah” is like modern music’s double-slash—a brief, emphatic pause. “But what we’re to do during the break is uncertain,” she said. “Its context suggests various things: praise, reflection, connecting ideas, or my favorite, ‘weighing’”—based on alternate usage of the same word to mean “hanging,” as in a balance. She advised me to thumb through Psalms and observe where and how “Selah” is placed. “All the interpretations work.”


If we can’t say what response “Selah” intends to elicit, we know it wants us to think. The psalmists most often attach it to exclamations of God’s faithfulness. Psalm 61.4: “I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings. Selah” Psalm 67.4: “You rule the peoples justly and guide the nations of the earth. Selah” Psalm 49.15: “God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself. Selah” The psalmists insist we internalize these acclamations of mercy, justice, and safekeeping. Selah makes time to think of God’s goodness. He honors His promises, shields His people, judges rightly, redeems, and accepts. It’s good to pause and think about these things.

There’s another side to Selah, though—a time to think through our conflicts with God. He’s not always pleased with us and, frankly, we’re not always pleased with Him. This should give us pause. Psalm 77.9: “Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion? Selah” Psalm 88.7: “Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. Selah” And in Psalm 82.1-2, we find a most curious scenario. God concedes authority to lesser deities that favor the ungodly, raising the psalmist’s complaint: “How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Selah”

Subscribing to my friend’s definition, Selah invites us to weigh our circumstances thoughtfully. We balance joy in God’s faithfulness with sober consideration of conflicts affecting our relationship with Him. In many cases, displeasure causes Him to withhold blessings until we correct our course. In Revelations 3.19, He says, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.” We must be wise enough to distinguish discipline from punishment. Discipline reinforces; punishment weakens. God lovingly pulls away to strengthen our resolve to please to Him. If we obey because we fear His wrath, our interests supersede His purpose. His is not pleased. But when we respond to correction with loving gratitude, we confirm our commitment to His will. Perfect love bridges our differences. John addresses this beautifully in his first epistle, summing it up in chapter 4, verse 18: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” This statement deserves a “Selah.”

A Holistic Selah

Suppose we combine every passage concluding with Selah. What message does a holistic Selah send? Given our discussion, it’s fairly apparent. Our relationship with God—like any other relationship—depends on successfully balancing what He asks of us with what we ask of Him. “This is my Father’s world,” the great hymn proclaims. He created us to maintain its balance and embody His presence in it. We are charged to care first for the whole—to love others, wage peace, and support justice—before considering ourselves and formulating our own opinions. In turn, we ask Him for guidance, understanding, and fortitude. We obey to bring Him honor and glory, trusting Him for protection and help. When we stray from His purpose we embrace His course correction.

But this world is a crazy place—a shambles of disobedience. It’s out of balance with its Creator’s purpose and will. Every day, we’re challenged to weigh what’s easiest and most pleasing for us against what best pleases God. Choosing Him above others and ourselves often brings trouble. Doing what’s right can be a burden; caring for others can be backbreaking. Yet, when we please God, He’s pleased to shoulder loads we carry. Of all the Psalms, I think 68.19 best captures the holistic Selah’s balance: “Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens. Selah” We trust His faithfulness. He bears our burdens. We do what He asks of us. He does what we ask of Him. Selah

Selah invites us to pause and weigh God’s goodness against our obedience, to consider the balance in our lives as we strive for balance in the world.

(Tomorrow: Kickfighting)

Friday, July 31, 2009


I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.

                        Isaiah 44.3 

Gray Skies Bring Color

It’s been a wetter summer than usual. Yesterday, the mid-Atlantic got hammered with storms and tornadoes. My parents tell me this is the rainiest summer in the decade or so they’ve lived in Florida. And as I write this, the sky is overcast and thunderstorms are expected later tonight, with rain predicted for five of the next 10 days. We Chicagoans typically enter summer with a grudge hanging over from a tough winter. The last one was colder and snowier than usual, so this pattern of downpours every three days or so isn’t sitting well around here. We’re a little miffed at Mother Nature for rewarding our winter hardships with summer delights.

Personally, I find whining about weather and shaking fists at the sky a little nutty. To keep out of that trap, I remind myself gray skies bring color. A wet, snowy winter gives birth to a verdant, spectacular spring. A rainy summer leads to stunning autumn foliage. When, as Karen Carpenter crooned, rainy days (and Mondays) get me down, I pick myself up by looking ahead instead of resenting the past. It’s a little cuckoo—as nuts as the complaining I’m try to avoid—but it gets me through the rain.

How Rain Works

Rain can ruin a day. Outings are cancelled, chores put off, and travels delayed. In our frustration, we forget how rain works. It falls today to end yesterday’s drought and start tomorrow’s growth. When current inconveniences are forgot, blessings carried in the rain remain. Isaiah 44.3 is a splendid reminder of this. “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground,” God says. Dry places where we’ve not seen any progress, sparse areas that no longer produce, and streams that ceased to flow will awaken with fresh life. Past disappointments will be rectified. We welcome rain to these regions. We’ve prayed for downpours here. What we’re apt to miss, though, are rain’s promises for our future.

“I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants,” God proclaims. His downpour restores and regenerates. When He showers His Spirit on us, lost hopes gain new life and new hopes are planted. Therefore, while rejoicing in amazement at our renewal, we also sing and dance with expectancy of fresh potential. Rainy days are the perfect time to thank God for correcting old losses and creating new possibilities.

The Next Generation

Although the writer uses a different metaphor (God’s enduring fortress), Psalm 48.13 encourages us to marvel at His works “that you may tell of them to the next generation.” When the Holy Spirit is given at Pentecost, Peter explains it as the fulfillment of God’s promise in Joel 2.28: “I will pour out my Spirit on all people”—the same promise Isaiah records. And it’s worth noting the first believers greeted the Spirit’s downpour in terms of its impact on future generations rather than its significance to them. The first sermon a Christian preacher ever delivered looks beyond the now to envision the next. Peter tells his impromptu audience: “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2.39)

Whether or not we’re parents, we have children—young people who follow our example and construct their lives on truth we impart to them. As God’s rain revives our blighted hopes, it also seeps into their hearts and minds. Downpours that wash away our dead ideas and rejuvenate our dry riverbeds also fill their reservoirs and soften their soil. Ground we can’t break will flourish for them. They’ll bathe in clean springs bursting through our dusty traditions. They’ll drink healthy water replenishing our stagnant wells. We need to know this. More than that, they must know it. We have to teach them their future flows with freshwater sources we thirsted for. We must impress on them their responsibility to cultivate growth and progress we won’t fully achieve. Let’s not complain about gray skies and dark clouds hovering overhead. Let’s rejoice in downpours they bring. They revive hope we lost and instill hope in generations to come.

God's downpours revive past hopes and instill future ones.

(Tomorrow: Selah)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Eyes and Ears

The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry.

                        Psalm 34.15

Cellophane Crises

The Broadway musical Chicago stops smack in the middle of its razzle-dazzle for one of the saddest songs ever heard on the stage. Amos, cuckolded husband of murderously ambitious Roxie Hart, steps into the spotlight and sings “Mr. Cellophane,” his lament of being perpetually ignored. The refrain captures his sorrow to a tee: “You can look right through me, walk right by me, and never know I’m there.” I’ve probably seen the number performed a dozen times—in productions ranging from spectacular to regrettable—and no matter how poorly it’s rendered, it always raises a lump to my throat. Feeling invisible is common to us all, and with it the attendant sense nobody sees or hears us because we’re not worth being seen or heard.

Cellophane crises with people leave us rattled and depressed. But feeling that God’s not watching or listening takes a much graver toll. It digs beneath personality-driven insecurities to question the value He places on us as His creations. Times when we think God neither sees who we are nor hears what we say can catapult us into deep despair. This is why it’s essential to know our Creator vigilantly watches over us and hears us, despite every feeling and circumstance goading us to doubt it. Climbing out dejection starts with a tight grip on Psalm 34.15: “The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry.” We may not feel Him looking. It may sound like our prayers go no further than the ceiling. But He is looking and listening. We must believe this with total confidence.

No Immunity

There’s no immunity against spiritual cellophane crises. They typically strike at our weakest, most vulnerable moments. They’re opportunistic, attacking when they’re best able to overwhelm. The best example of this comes from Jesus. He hangs on a cross, battered and bleeding, staring into the faces of former fans turned into jeering accusers. Hatred and fear jaundice their vision; they see a common criminal suspended before them. Their shouts and laughter drown His words and groans. But Christ’s sense of invisibility to others hardly compares to the agony of feeling like God’s no longer attentive to Him. He bears this as long as possible before screaming, “My God,” calling again, “My God,” and then pleading, “Why have you forsaken me?” Christ’s anguish chills us to the core. When He needs His Father most, He’s forced to cry for Him: Where are You? Do You see this? Are You listening? If Jesus isn’t spared moments of invisibility, if He can’t avoid cellophane crises, it’s foolish to imagine we can.

Yet Jesus’s sense of abandonment is fleeting. He bridles His emotions to trust what He knows. God is there, watching and listening. When physical, mental, and emotional strength fails, He entrusts God with His care: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23.46) If Jesus can overcome feeling invisible and believe God is present, so can we.

Seen in Secret, Heard in Advance

Feeling invisible rocks us because it devalues us. Human nature and self-regard place great value in being part of the crowd, not lost in it. And the only thing worse than feeling unseen and unheard is being made to feel invisible. It’s a purposeful insult meant to say, “You’re not worth being seen and heard.” For the moment it stings, we may believe it. If our confidence that God sees and hears can’t be shaken, though, being seen and heard by others loses all importance. In fact, Jesus teaches certainty God’s eyes are on us and His ears are tuned to our prayers negates all need to be noticed.

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them,” we read in Matthew 6.1. Don’t give to be seen, Jesus says, and don’t pray to be heard. “When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (v6-8) We are not invisible to God. We’re seen in public, seen in secret. Our prayers are heard in advance. His eyes rest on us and His ears stay open at all times.

OK. I can’t resist the Divine Miss M. Bette Midler: “From a Distance.”

(Tomorrow: Downpour)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

One Wise Ass

Then the LORD opened the donkey’s mouth.

                        Numbers 22.28

Intuitive Insight

From the moment we brought him home, our cat Cody has displayed more intuitive insight than any animal Walt or I ever owned. Lest I sound like one of those people claiming their pet or child is the brightest ever born, we often wish ours wasn’t so intuitive. Whenever we override our better judgment, Cody sets us straight. For instance, since we’re both night owls who don’t keep planned bedtimes, Cody's taken over as our curfew officer. When it’s time to turn in, he gently taps our arms. If we brush him off, he returns with impatient whimpers. If we dismiss him again, he turns into a bully, creating complete chaos to break our concentration until we shut down for the night. Not until the lights go out is peace restored. It’s crazy to think Cody recognizes our need for rest when we don’t (or won’t). But he does. And while many of us have similar stories of our pets’ abilities to sense what we need and observe what we ignore, Balaam’s donkey tops them all. It grabs the headlines, yet the whole tale, recorded in Numbers 22, leaves us plenty to think about.

A Perilous Road

Israel’s wilderness trek is reaching its end. During the journey’s last leg, it’s attacked on two occasions by different kings. Israel routs them with God-given force, causing rulers it’s yet to pass to quake with fear. They summon Balaam, a pagan prophet attuned to God’s voice, offering him a lot of money to hex Israel. The first time he’s called, God instructs him to decline. The rulers dispatch more prestigious emissaries a second time with an offer he can’t refuse. Balaam knows the richer fee won’t alter God’s caution against cursing His people. Still, it’s too sweet to resist. So God tells Balaam to go ahead with one caveat: he’s to do only as God commands. (In actuality, He gives Balaam an out. He can tell the pagans, “I’ll go, but I can’t obey your wishes.”) Misconstruing God’s option as tacit permission, however, he starts down a perilous road.

Three times, an angel blocks Balaam’s way. He doesn’t notice, but his faithful donkey does. First, it veers off the road. Next, it stubbornly leans against a wall, crushing Balaam’s foot. Lastly, it sits down and refuses move. Each time, Balaam beats the donkey until it finally cries, “What have I done to deserve this?” Balaam says it’s made him look foolish. “Do I normally act like this?” the donkey asks, implying something irregular is going on (no kidding) and the famous seer’s too blind with greed to perceive it. “No,” Balaam answers. Honesty opens his eyes to the angel his donkey recognized all along. “I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me,” Balaam is told. (Numbers 22.32) The angel shames the psychic: “The donkey saw me… If she had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared her.” (v33) Balaam is cleared to proceed on condition he speaks exactly as God instructs. He reaches his benefactors, enrages them, and humiliates himself by blessing Israel instead of cursing it.

Unwitting Channels

Balaam’s donkey invariably sparks debate about whether it really speaks. Other than the Garden serpent used as a disguise, the donkey is the Bible’s only talking animal. If it actually speaks or, like Cody, simply conveys its displeasure has no consequence. The story is neither about the donkey nor Balaam. It’s about God’s turning a stubborn donkey and master into unwitting channels for Him to speak and bless His people. While this is one wise ass unlike any other, how God uses him is fairly common. He works similarly in the Early Church and He’s doing it again.

In Romans 11, Paul says God parlayed mainstream Jews’ denial of Christ into an unwitting channel for non-Jews’ acceptance. He calls it a “mystery,” saying, “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of Gentiles has come in.” (v25) The Jews’ closed minds create openings so “you who were at one time disobedient to God have now received mercy as a result of their disobedience.” (v30) Balaam’s opportunism gives God opportunity. The Jews’ rejection of God’s forgiveness enables Gentiles to receive it. “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable,” verse 29 reads. Whom God chooses to use He will use. Disregarding God’s gifts and call sends them down a reckless path, yet they always come to serve His purpose.

Today, another people is leaving its wilderness of religious rejection and spiritual deprivation. While these freed slaves march into the land of promise, fear grips their foes. Prophets ignore God’s warning against seductive offers to curse His people. Self-interest lures them down reckless paths. They ride on the backs of those wise and intuitive enough to see what they miss. Although those under them suffer hard beatings, God will open their mouths to speak and He’ll show Himself to their blind masters. His gifts and call are irrevocable; errant prophets—even pagan ones endowed with unique skills—will obey Him in the end. When God decides to bless His people, no ruler or prophet can defy Him.

The donkey speaks, the seer sees, and God’s people are blessed.

(Tomorrow: Eyes and Ears)

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Let It Grow

While you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest.

                        Matthew 13.29-30

Efficiency Issues

It’s common to approach any new endeavor—from starting a relationship, family, or job to lesser tasks like redecorating or taking a trip—with a glance over the shoulder to avoid mistakes we’ve made or seen in others. We note early signs of trouble and vow to nip it in the bud before it gets out of control. We want things to go more easily and efficiently this time. So we begin on full alert, combing through every detail to root out spoilers. It’s a sensible approach. It sounds sensible at least. But itemizing potential efficiency issues about anything before seeing how it goes can prove more foolish than we think.

Jesus’s parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13.24-30) lays out three good reasons why this is. First, we may not realize something’s gone awry for a while. By the time we’re aware of it, it’s already taken hold and requires careful thought to manage it constructively. Second, we may look at trouble without seeing it. Many harmful situations, ideas, habits, and people resemble healthy ones. If our eagerness to root out trouble as soon as possible overtakes us, we risk suspicions about good things planted in our lives. We may nip the wrong buds. And finally, once we do identify problems springing up around us, moving too hastily to remove them very well may endanger stability and growth in other areas of our lives. Jesus says tolerating weeds is wiser—and, in the long run, more efficient—than destroying good wheat with preemptive zeal. When we find trouble sows its seeds uncomfortably close to our good seed, it’s best to let it grow. Time for removal will come. But we take care not to sacrifice what feeds us by pulling up what drains us.

Gradually Awakening

Here’s how the story goes. A farmer plants his field with good seed. While he and his farmhands sleep, however, his enemy spreads bad seed with the good. It’s a nasty, premeditated scheme to ruin the farmer. The enemy’s seed disguises itself as wheat until it reaches maturity. Without seeing what it produces, the farmer can’t distinguish it from the healthy grain. As the field ripens, the farmer begins gradually awakening to the furtive trick played on him while he slept. His servants ask if they should tear out the weeds when they become noticeable. The farmer tells them to hold off, “because while you’re pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them.” For the time being, it’s enough to know the weeds are there. “Let both grow together until the harvest,” he says. “At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.” (Matthew 13.30)

The Keys of the Kingdom

Jesus prefaces the parable by saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field.” (v24) This explicitly fixes it as a metaphor for conserving the productivity of God’s love and grace in the world. The farmer’s reluctance to disturb the growing wheat prior to harvest points to a final reckoning. The weeds will be burned in bundles and the wheat gathered into the farmer’s barn. On this level, the story is prophetic—a simple explanation of God’s plan to redeem those who produce nourishing grain and cast off others whose appearance of goodness is exposed by failure to produce. Reading it this way imparts two essential truths. One: Appearances will mislead us. Many who look and grow like wheat sprout from bad seed. They’re weeds sown among us to drain valuable resources and destabilize our roots. When they ripen to reveal they’re useless, people may look at our field and presume it’s all weeds. It’s possible the good we accomplish will go unnoticed until the harvest. Two: Harvest determines their fate. It’s not for us to expose impostor weeds. Our job is to grow and bear fruit, to be pleasing to God and counted worthy to be kept.

The principles of Christ’s kingdom theology aren’t confined to the hereafter. He teaches them so we can live by them now, which leads us to glean a pragmatic, personally applicable lesson from the story. In Matthew 16.19, Jesus tells us: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven”—of the kingdom, not to it, meaning if it’s true there it’s true here. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The weeds in our lives must grow until we’re sure what they are and confident removing them won’t destroy the good we grow. When it’s safe, we can pull, bind, and toss them into the fire. It’s the most efficient, effective method we have, because once that’s done, they’re gone for good; the harm they cause goes with them. If we act too soon, we may cause more damage than necessary, uprooting healthy grain we need to store for future nourishment. Knowing how to manage trouble includes understanding why and when we should let it grow.

We may not recognize weeds until they fail to produce. Rather than hurry to eliminate trouble, it's often wiser to let it grow for the sake of the good thriving around it.

(Tomorrow: One Wise Ass)

Monday, July 27, 2009

Good Fear

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding.

                        Psalm 111.10

Trembles and Shakes

Two mentors, a film professor and a critic, shaped my college years, graciously introducing me to a number of esteemed people in their circles. Most of these experiences are filed away, their details fading with age. But two dinner parties, one hosted by each mentor, will remain vivid in memory until I die. Famous filmmakers were guests at both, but they couldn’t have been more dissimilar.

The first involved a two-time Oscar winner whom my professor had written about extensively. An unexpected invitation to join him for dinner with the director and a few friends set off trembles. Being all of 19, I was in no way prepared for such august company. “I’ll embarrass you,” I sputtered. But he insisted and the big night arrived. Meeting the great man spun me into such a daze all I recall is locking my knees to keep standing. By the time we sat down, however, he had so gently disarmed my fears the dinner turned into one of the loveliest evenings of my life.

The second director—genius to some, violent misanthrope to others—showed up at the critic’s apartment without warning, knowing she often hosted long movie discussions over casual suppers. The thrill of meeting him proved short-lived. He was drunk, surly, and disinterested in a movie the rest of us watched while our hostess finished cooking. When a promo for a recent Western came on, he reeled off curses at its “pretty-boy” outlaws. We ignored him—until he aimed a pistol at the TV. Unsure of what he’d do next, I offered to get him a drink just to escape the room. Safely in the kitchen, I told the critic, “He’s got a gun!” She told me to calm down. “It’s fine. He’s in my house.” She marched up to him and said, “You have to leave.” The infamously macho man promised to behave. “Now!” she said without raising her voice. The night ended with soured regard for the filmmaker, but trembling respect for the critic.

Two Kinds of Fear

These stories exemplify two kinds of fear frequently mentioned in the Bible: fear of God and fear of people and problems. Without distinguishing them, we’re apt to read admonitions to embrace fear in one passage as contradicting commands to reject fear in another. For example, Deuteronomy 6.13 tells us, “Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.” Yet almost every time God or His messenger comes on the scene, the first thing we hear is, “Fear not.” In 2 Timothy 1.7, Paul says, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (NKJV) So what do we do with Proverbs 3.7: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil”? Though they appear directly opposed, they’re aligned, because they refer to opposite fears. Solomon’s fear is good: trembling with awe when we contrast our weakness and knowledge with God’s power and omniscience—the sort of fear I experienced at the first dinner party. Paul’s fear is bad: shaking with uncertainty brought on by unanticipated threats—what I felt at the critic’s dinner.

Good Neutralizes Bad

Psalm 111.10 declares, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all who follow his precepts have good understanding.” Governing our lives by God’s principles begins with acknowledging His supremacy in all things. The scope of His authority exceeds our logic, requiring us to accept it by faith. Standing before God demands relinquishing all desires to control, influence, or predict life’s outcomes. Our wishes concede to His will. Our worries yield to His Word. Our wants submit to His ways. It’s a fearful thing and until we realize its benefits, we can’t begin to comprehend it. Yet it only takes entrusting our problems to His care just once to know when we fear God, He disarms our jitters. His first words are “Be not afraid.” That’s why fear of God is good. And after we learn this, we find something that makes it even better. Good fear neutralizes bad fear.

As light drives darkness from the sky, good fear drives bad fear from our hearts. The more we fear God the less we fear anything or anyone else. David writes, “The LORD is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27.1) When fears barge in on us, we alert the One we fear most. From God’s stronghold, David says, “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear.” (v3) God is our fortress. Fears that shake us don’t faze Him. We’re in His house. He sees they leave. And, as always, we tremble before Him.

Whatever or whoever "they" are.

(Tomorrow: Let It Grow)      

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Beautiful Worship

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name. Bring an offering and come before him; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.

                        1 Chronicles 16.29 

Somewhere Today

Somewhere today a pregnant teenager will feel seething stares of disapproval as she walks into a sanctuary. A middle-aged woman once shunned by her church will bravely return, only to find it won't forget what God's forgiven. A gay believer seeking guidance and fellowship will watch his hopes shriveled by scathing condemnation. Somewhere today thousands of ostracized and alienated people longing to worship a loving, merciful God will encounter attitudes and invective aimed at keeping them from His table.

The majority will allow hostility and inhospitality to drive them away. Some will never enter a church again. Others will look for a more accepting, wholesome place of worship—a true sanctuary for their souls. A slim minority will ignore contradictory behaviors and mixed messages to train total attention on their Creator and Redeemer. They possess a rare, invaluable gift each of us should ask to receive. They’re endowed with vision to perceive the splendor of God’s holiness despite every shameful frailty and failure exhibited in His house. Their singular devotion to Him makes for exquisitely beautiful worship.

Oblivious Worship

Churches—and the congregations inside them—function in various of ways. They’re community halls where people extol shared beliefs and institutes of spiritual advancement. They’re rest stops for weary hearts, hospitals for wounded spirits, clinics for worried minds, and pantries for weakened souls. They’re lighthouses for those drifting in darkness and havens for those who find their way to shore. They’re symbols of Christ’s resurrection and monuments to His death. And when they open for worship, they function as payment centers to settle accounts with God by repaying His kindness with our praise.

“Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name,” reads 1 Chronicles 16.29. “Bring an offering and come before him.” Glory offered to God is our currency of worship. We come into His presence to express gratitude and praise to Him for being unlike any person or power in our lives. Every thought, word, song, and gesture reflects Psalm 86.10: “For you are great and do marvelous deeds; you alone are God.” Our minds center on one question and answer: “How can I repay the LORD for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD. I will fulfill my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.” (Psalm 116.12-13) Much as we forget everyone in the bank when we’re at the teller’s window, we forget who’s around us while offering God praise. We don’t worship to be favorably seen or accepted. Our sole concern is having God favorably see and accept our praise. Thus, in terms of who or what surrounds us, beautiful worship must be oblivious worship.

Perceptive Worship

Perceptive worship is also beautiful. It’s keenly attuned to the purity of God’s love and concern for us. We offer praise because that’s all He asks and all we can give. Nothing we possess is anything He needs. Worship steeped in the perception there is none like Him opens our minds to know His completeness. “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made,” John 1.3 tells us. He is all in all—encompassing everything in His boundless existence. Perceptive worship envisions His fullness as everything we need, everything we seek, everything we love, and every delight we enjoy. When we release our minds and spirits to see God as He truly is, worship becomes a transporting experience that removes us from human imperfections and cares by lifting us into His perfect presence and power. Sharpening our abilities to perceive God’s majesty and might is how we take full advantage of 1 Chronicles’ injunction to “worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness.”

Somewhere today a pregnant teenager will enter a sanctuary feeling nothing but God’s presence. A shunned woman will return to her faith community and find His holy splendor. A gay believer will delight in the guidance and fellowship he receives by seeing the fullness of God. Somewhere today thousands of previously ostracized and alienated believers will bask in Divine love and acceptance. In return for God’s merciful kindness, they will give Him glory due His name, coming before Him with offerings of praise. Their worship will eclipse any ugliness circling around it. May all of our worship be just as beautifully oblivious and perceptive.

“There Is None Like You”—a song of oblivious, perceptive, beautiful worship.

(Tomorrow: Good Fear)